I need to confess something and unburden my conscience. I know you, the reader, won’t judge. I’m not looking for pardon or forgiveness so much as understanding and compassion, maybe even some kindred spirits to offer an understanding ear. Ok. Here it is. I confess: I have a craving for Little Debbie snack cakes that just won’t quit. Ok. Ok. Ok. It’s not a craving so much as an actual habit.
I could write at length of my experience with any of the cakes (some of which aren’t cakes so much as cookies or confections), but I’ll just name a few. Consider the classic Oatmeal Cream Pie, two soft cookies with a stiff filling, the consistency of which suggests it must contains some form of petroleum-based product. I like pairing the chewy pies, but only the big ones you buy in individual wrappers, with a medium dark roast from Casey’s General Stores. The coffee presents toasty and piquant on the front of the pallet balancing the mild sugary burn of the cake on the back of the throat.
I could go on, treating the Nutty Bar, the Fudge Round and even the Star Crunch. But, I’ll stop with what has to be Debbie’s pinnacle accomplishment, the Zebra Cake Roll, a recent concoction, combing the classic Zebra Cake and Swiss Roll, traditions mixed to make something new, even sublime. Those, I can eat with or without coffee, any time of day, preferably alone and even better while hiding in some private place, lacing the experience of the cake with something that feels illicit. See, it’s a problem.
Worse, it’s not confined to snack cakes. When it comes to eating, I can devour enormous quantities of meat, bread, even vegetables when prepared in ways I like.
I’ve been fortunate. I’m still healthy, and for the last several years, I’ve developed better habits, but it takes constant monitoring. Several years ago, a doctor notified me that my weight wasn’t what it should be. I left a bit offended, thinking that she hadn’t needed to tell me what I could plainly see in the mirror, while assuring myself that I wasn’t nearly as heavy as I could be. In the days following, as I pieced my self-image, once athletic and fit, now “borderline obese” and lazy, back together, I began to question the ethics of how I ate. Scripture and Christian tradition seemed to say something about consuming more than I needed. At the same time, I’d been reading and researching forms of penance, and I decided to give one a try. Just two days after the doctor’s visit, I started to fast. In subsequent years, I aligned my fasting with Lent. Then, two years ago, I decided, as Easter approached, to continue the practice throughout the entire year.
Now with years of experience, I believe that fasting has done more to feed me spiritually than any practice I’ve ever tried. It certainly helped my physical health. Every time I maintain a fast, even with minor setbacks and failures, I lose pounds. Through regular fasting, I now maintain a healthier weight. I lower my blood pressure and maintain other healthier metrics like blood glucose and body mass index. I’ve also benefited spiritually, staying more attuned to prayers and a better sense of what I need as opposed to what I want in life. But, before, I say more about those spiritual benefits, I need to explain my fast.
I don’t stop eating. I eat plenty, but less than I would like. Fasting can look a lot of different ways. It can mean going with no food for extended periods of time, but it also means strategically eliminating certain foods. I try to follow an old Roman Catholic approach with a contemporary modification. By “fasting,” the Church taught that the faithful should reduce what they ate. Instead of three full meals, an extravagance even in modern history, Catholics were asked to skip one, reduce a second by half and to eat more sensibly for the third. When I read that (I can’t remember where), it sounded like it might make sense, but, I worried that “reducing by half” and “sensibly” lacked definition. I could, after all, easily argue that “sensibly” meant that my twenty-four-ounce porterhouse with two pieces of Texas toast and large baked potato could become a sixteen-ounce ribeye, one piece of toast and a smaller potato. Without a clearer set of parameters, I knew I’d do just that. To make it clear to myself, I set calorie limits with a small breakfast, little or no lunch, and a dinner with enough calories to reach the limit. At times, I’ve also used a nightly snack of instant oatmeal to make sleeping easier.
During my most rigorous fasts, I set a daily limit of 1,200 calories during the week and 1,500 on Saturdays. On Sundays, I celebrate the Resurrection and allow myself to eat without limit, though, I have to keep my meals at least within a few hundred calories of my daily limit. More recently, 1,200 just hasn’t been enough, my blood sugar dropping to uncomfortable levels by evening. To respond, I just raised the limit to 1,500. That still seems to work. Occasionally, I’ll even let myself go higher. I even splurge with big meals once in a while, especially on special occasions, but maintaining the limit forces me to think about what I want, comparing it to what I really need. That’s where the spiritual benefits start.
Fasting and the hunger it generated made me realize: my eating habits can be downright selfish. Without fasting and reflection, I eat only to support myself physically and emotionally. I eat without regard to the animal that gave its life for the meat. I eat without thinking about the farmer who grew the vegetables and grain. I eat as a means of quieting the world around me, just me and food, without regard for anyone else around. I eat in the dark of night, alone, without any regard for others. Those practices generate poor physical health to be sure, but they also produce self-loathing, poor self-image, isolation and resentment for those I see with what I think are better bodies, better food, better lives.
To prepare a sermon, I recently did a quick search of the New Testament using a couple of online tools. I didn’t do a lot of confirmation, but even with a cursory search, I found 139 uses of some form of the verb “to eat.” I’m sure some of those are just passing references, but the majority include significant teachings that relate to a lot more than food. It seems that Jesus and the early New Testament writers understood the power of a meal. In all four gospels, Jesus feeds 5,000 (Matt 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15). He goads the Pharisees’ by eating grain on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5) and dining with society’s lowest participants, prostitutes and tax collectors (Matt 9:10-11, Mark 2:13-17). He even dines with the Pharisees themselves, his constant critics (Luke 7:36). Maybe most significantly, he established a meal as the means by which he shares himself not just with the disciples who knew him in life, but for every follower who has ever desired relationship with him (Matt 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:15-20).
The New Testament wraps eating around the mold cast by Jesus himself, a mold characterized by self-giving and love. Eating, when done as an act of self-giving, rather than self-taking, self-loathing or self-aggrandizing, provides an incredible platform from which we might become better people, shaping those around us to be a better society. Pope Francis recently tweeted the following quote: “Fasting is fruitful when accompanied by concrete expressions of love towards our neighbors, especially those in difficulty.” I think that’s right.
What I find most powerful in fasting isn’t the weight I lose or the fact that I feel healthier. Instead, fasting works because it forces me to be more intentional when I do eat. I don’t eat as much. But, I also try to savor the meals I do share with family and friends. Meals become more about my interaction with others and less about the emotional charge I get from the food. I find myself more grateful for the animals and plants I consume. I think about how I might waste less and about acts of love I might pair with the fast even when I’m cranky from hunger.
Before I end, I do want to offer a word of warning. Fasting, if conducted as a means of deprivation or worse, as a means of self-loathing, presents an awful, even evil, danger. If you’re the sort of person who, because of poor self-image or emotional pain or poor health, doesn’t eat enough, or worse, if you have an eating disorder that drives you to dangerously low weight, fasting from food is not for you. Pope Francis is right: fasting must be paired with love. Fasting must become a means by which we share ourselves with others. Love means self-giving, and self-destruction, whether through overeating or under-eating, eliminates the possibility of sharing yourself with others.
Maybe you’re thinking that I’m supposed to be writing about finances. Honestly, I think I am. Our finances ought to be considered in the same light as the food we eat. In The Vile Practices, I tried to paint personal and congregational finances in terms of self-giving. If our financial lives aren’t tied directly to efforts to give more of ourselves for God’s work, if we spend more than we need, and certainly, if we spend more than we have, we will never succeed in ministry. God calls us to always give more of ourselves, and healthy financial practices, will only magnify what we might give and do in ministry. Maybe the Pope’s quote offers a good suggestion. What might our lives look like if we find healthier eating habits, consuming less than we need, and pair them with more generous financial practices?